The Mulberry Street Gang

The Mulberry Street Gang

In New York City in the 1890’s, on the corner of Mulberry and Houston Streets, an extraordinary handful of people held forth from their various corners. The means they used to project their feelings and aspirations were all radically different from one another and also a departure from anything the world had ever seen before. They were each also preoccupied with the inequalities and injustices that characterized life for the average person in their time and they were each determined to change the course of their society’s history. What is amazing is, they each did. Each needed to re-define what could be, even should be. What they each realized was, that making such a breakthrough required them to invent a new medium, so fresh that it could convey their fierce determination to their fellow creatures, where mere words could never work. What a crew they were.


Joseph Keppler

Joseph Keppler, Austrian immigrant artist and founder of PUCK magazine, 1877-1917. Descendant of Johannes Keppler, 17th Century planetary scientist and author of Harmonices Mundi. Drew the pictures, sold the ads, wrote the copy. Got Presidents elected and corrupt trusts busted. Invented the color comic book.


Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, Danish immigrant writer and photographer, pioneer in the use of documentary photography as a tool of social improvement. Wrote “How the other half lives”, important muckraking exposure of society’s underbelly. Took TR with him as his body guard and got him worked up about unacceptable living conditions etc.

Theodor Roosevelt, the new Police Commissioner, given the job of taking on a department which was the headquarters of most of the criminal activity taking place in the city, primarily bribes to ignore illegal activity. He eventually found that he had to start a whole political party to upset the status quo.


Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, Serbian immigrant scientist and inventor of AC current and the induction motor, the power of Niagara Falls, the radio, neon and fluorescent lighting, the electric starter in your car etc. He stated, as his goal, to make life easier for all of us, to remove the burdens, and not just of the few.


Mark Twain

Mark Twain, his friend Samuel Clemens, who loved all of the strange toys in Tesla’s laboratory and liked to visit him to play with them. While Tesla was lighting the world, Twain was getting the world to lighten up.



What unites these folks, aside from their temporal and geographical proximity, is the courage it took to take on the cruelest elements of their society, with nothing but their extraordinary courage and determination to arm them. Each knew that they had to re-invent the language, add another dimension, shuffle the cosmic deck and sit in the dealer’s chair to be able to make a difference. They fed off of one another’s willingness to take on the most deeply-entrenched forces of their time, and, incredibly, each managed to prevail, at least for a time.

It was a black and white world back then but Tesla used colored light and multi-hued lightening flashes and Keppler used off-color humor and color inks, to transform our world. They saw the future and realized that we were headed to a place where verisimilitude was going to be essential and we would not get there without a full measure of truth-telling in the process. PUCK magazine took on the most powerful people and forces in the society, dressed them in ladies clothes or portrayed them as animals, pulled them off their pedestals as rudely as humanly possible. Tesla took on Thomas Edison, the titan of titans, and humbled him by proving that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Twain was the first stand-up comedian. There were some before him, and lecturing and giving talks was a common event in the pre-electronic universe, but his version was unusually pertinent, moved issues and changed results and he used a sharpness of humor and genius for the unexpected that is still on display on Colbert and Jimmy Fallon’s beats. They named the official humor prize after him for good reason.

TR is hard to fit into this picture until you realize that he took the edginess of PUCK and the social sensitivity of Riis and revolutionized politics in his time with concerns for nature and the common man, busted trusts and attacked monopolies. He was immersed in the angry righteousness of these two immigrant firebrands and it worked against his earlier macho experiences and transformed him into a different person.

The sum total effect of the creativity and compassion of these three pattern-smashing immigrants and two classic Americans, and the work that they did, has contributed mightily to whatever remnants of humanism that have survived the century long onslaught, through wars, depressions etc. on our empathies. That they shared the same space and time, must have had some contacts and surely had great influence upon one another is remarkable, verging on amazing. The energy that they contributed to and drew from this location is clearly evident in our own, now ubiquitous, color-saturated technologies, and our reliance on sassy humor to give us essential relief from the many hazards of this existence, points up how powerful their contributions to our welfare have evolved.

Nolita has emerged as a key incubator for new clothing designers. Bordered on the east by the formerly-shabby, but lately ultra chic, Bowery, and with the historic PUCK building, recent home of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, at its NorthWest corner. There are $60 million penthouses being sold there. It is a small but very influential neighborhood. Part of the Little Italy Historic District and abutting Chinatown, it is almost entirely low-rise tenements so this possibly 14 story building is unusual. Houston street, was first called “North” street, when it was the northernmost border of the early city. The name is thought to be derived from the Dutch Huis Tuin, House Garden.

This property, 49 East Houston Street was directly across the street from the laboratory of Nikola Tesla at 48 East Houston Street.

~ by Larry Revene on March 26, 2017.

2 Responses to “The Mulberry Street Gang”

  1. really a great article about our NYC history


  2. […] […]


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